Eight Circuit Affirms Trial Court's Denial of Spoliation Sanctions Where No "Desire to Suppress the Truth" and No Prejudice Shown
In this case, Greyhound Lines, Inc. sued Robert Wade and Archway Cookies, LLC (collectively Archway). In August 2000, an Archway truck driven by Wade rear-ended a Greyhound bus on Interstate 80 in Nebraska. After a bench trial, the district court apportioned fault at 85 percent to Archway and 15 percent to Greyhound. Archway appealed, asserting, among other things, that the court erred in refusing to impose sanctions for alleged spoliation of electronic data.
At the time of the collision, due to mechanical failure, the Greyhound bus was traveling below the posted minimum speed, in the right lane, hazard lights flashing, as the driver tried to reach the nearest off-ramp. The bus had an electronic control module (ECM) that stored information, including speed, starts, stops, and the time and type of a mechanical failure. Ten days after the accident, Greyhound removed the ECM and retrieved the information. The ECM indicated that a speed-sensor failure caused the bus's slow speed. Greyhound then sent the ECM to the engine manufacturer, who erased the information before the case was filed.
Archway contended that Greyhound deserved sanctions for destroying the ECM data. According to Archway, Greyhound had a duty to preserve the ECM data because litigation was likely, and the ECM data detailed the bus's operation before the accident. Archway argued that by failing to retain the ECM data, Greyhound prevented identifying when and where the bus first had problems.
The appellate court found that the trial court had not abused its discretion by refusing sanctions against Greyhound:
A spoliation-of-evidence sanction requires "a finding of intentional destruction indicating a desire to suppress the truth." "Intent is rarely proved by direct evidence, and a district court has substantial leeway to determine intent through consideration of circumstantial evidence, witness credibility, motives of the witnesses in a particular case, and other factors.”
Before, during and after trial, the district court reviewed Archway's spoliation claims, each time denying sanctions. Archway argues that because litigation was likely, Greyhound had a duty to preserve the ECM data. The ultimate focus for imposing sanctions for spoliation of evidence is the intentional destruction of evidence indicating a desire to suppress the truth, not the prospect of litigation. Thus, the district court did not err in finding spoliation had not occurred. Additionally, although some material was not preserved, the ECM data identified the specific mechanical defect that slowed the bus, and several bus passengers testified how the bus acted before the collision.